Who doesn’t like to eavesdrop? Riding the subway, standing in line at the bank, sitting at a restaurant table conveniently close to another table—all of these provide opportunities to drop in on a stranger’s life. And as often as not, how people talk is as interesting as what they are saying.
Reading a story is the ultimate glimpse into another person’s life, and one of the writer’s jobs, in any genre, is to provide dialogue so good, so true, that the reader can hear it just as clearly as if the characters were in the room. This task can be particularly challenging for nonfiction writers; in fact, some say that unless quoting sources directly, nonfiction writers have no business using dialogue in their work at all. Certainly, for journalists, that’s a given. But what about memoir, in which it’s often impossible to recreate dialogue that’s precisely accurate?
Lucy Grealy, author of The Autobiography of a Face, had a simple answer when asked how she remembered a conversation from her childhood. “I didn’t,” she said. “I’m a writer; I wrote it.” Mary Karr (author of The Liars’ Club and two other memoirs) is equally unapologetic about recreating dialogue. She claims that today’s readers are less willing to believe in a detached “objective truth” and, in fact, have come to expect a “subjective reality” when reading memoir. “You accept as a reader that I could reconstruct dialogue,” she explains, “and you’re comfortable with that.”
But other writers take a much stricter view. Suzannah Lessard, a highly regarded journalist and the author of the “assiduously researched” memoir The Architect of Desire, adheres more closely to the journalist’s standard. Reflecting on her experience of judging the nonfiction category for the National Book Awards in 1998, she explained that a number of memoirs were disqualified because detailed conversations from decades past “raised an issue for us that it was an imaginary work.” Rather than striving for verbatim accuracy in an effort to sharpen the blurred line between fiction and nonfiction, the memoirist must distill the spoken word so precisely that the authenticity of the scene is never in question.
In memoir, as in any narrative, dialogue can pace the story, advance plots and themes, reveal characters and relationships, and, ultimately, reveal as much from what is not said as from what is.
To see how the use of dialogue can function in memoir, perhaps it’s instructive to consider the nonfiction work of two writers in particular—both of them known more for their fiction, but equally adept in capturing the voices of real-life characters. Both Philip Roth and Bernard Cooper examine the strained relationships between aging fathers and their adult sons. Each is vulnerable to the claim that their fiction is just veiled autobiography—an assumption Roth bristles at, characterizing it as childish reading, though he acknowledges that most of his protagonists’ conflicts mirror his own. Cooper, less defensively, admits that much of his fiction is “very autobiographical.” In their memoirs, both writers rely heavily on dialogue to depict the real-life characters they draw from in their fiction.
Roth’s Patrimony: A True Story opens with a scene, but the entire first chapter is a digression, a reflection on how Roth’s father, Herman, struggled after the death of his wife of fifty-five years. It’s not until the end of the second chapter that we finally get to hear Herman speak at length, but by that point, Roth’s meticulously curated details of his father’s quirks—like hanging his clothes to dry in the living room to avoid “wasting” quarters in the basement dryer—have made him familiar, and his voice is exactly what we expect.
Bessie Roth died suddenly while dining out with Herman. Roth immediately flew back to the States from England, where he had been living, and took a taxi directly from the airport to his father’s house:
“She ordered New England clam chowder,” he told me as I kneeled beside him, still in my coat and holding his hand, “and I ordered Manhattan. When it came she said, ‘I don’t want this soup.’ I said, ‘Take mine—we’ll switch,’ but she was gone. Just slumped forward. Didn’t even fall. Made no trouble for anyone. The way she always did everything.”
In these few lines of dialogue, Roth both recreates the scene and captures the fog of grief. Herman’s speech feels overheard, not composed. He speaks in fragments, the unconnected ramblings of a man in shock, inflating the most irrelevant details with ludicrous urgency. New England versus Manhattan clam chowder receives equal billing with the terrible image of his wife “slumped forward.”
In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose explains how precisely observed gestures can replace paragraphs of exposition to “provide the benefit of commentary . . . and the sharply focused lens of point of view” as a grounding subtext for the reader. In the case of Roth’s memoir, the image of the narrator kneeling at his father’s knee, without even having taken off his coat, heightens the drama and urgency of the scene. Contributing to the fast pace is the absence of tag lines (I said, he said). While Roth the son may have been mumbling consolations, Roth the author has intentionally scripted the scene with monologue to showcase his father’s grief.
But dialogue must be more than monologue, and Roth is also skilled at pacing his scenes through lifelike, high-speed conversations. The following dialogue, between Roth and his mother, appears in the middle of a lengthy expository paragraph about the history of Roth’s parents’ marriage and his mother’s surprising announcement one day that she was considering a divorce:
“But, Ma,” I said, “it’s late for a divorce, no? You’re seventy-six.” . . . “He doesn’t listen to what I say,” she said. “He interrupts all the time to talk about something else. When we’re out, that’s the worst. Then he won’t let me speak at all. If I start to, he just shuts me up. In front of everyone. As though I don’t exist.” “Tell him not to do it,” I said. “It wouldn’t make any difference.” “Then tell him a second time and if it still doesn’t work, get up and say, ‘I’m going home.’ And go.” “Oh, darling, I couldn’t. No, I couldn’t embarrass him like that. Not with company.” “But you tell me he embarrasses you when you’re with company.” “That’s different. He’s not like me. He couldn’t take it, Philip. He would crumble up. It would kill him.”
The first illustration we have of the nature of Roth’s relationship with his mother is the familial shorthand—“[I]t’s late for a divorce, no?” Prose would call this the “accidental poetry of everyday speech” (165). A writer with a less attuned ear might have written something like “You’ve been married for so long, you’ve gone through so much together. Do you really think divorce is a good idea at this point?”—words that provide the same information, but without the comfortable rhythm that can develop only between people who know each other intimately.
Bessie Roth’s litany, while trite, is expressed in a kind of shorthand that lets the reader know she’s been reciting it (if only in her head) for quite some time. Again, the sentence fragments and the conflation of seemingly prosaic details make the reader feel dropped into an actual scene. But upon closer examination, it is clear that Roth has orchestrated every word. It is a study in minimalism: in just one short fragment, the four-word line In front of everyone, the reader gets what’s really at stake here. Roth’s mother is humiliated. But she does not invite Roth to encroach upon the established boundary between mother and son. She uses his name only once, but pointedly: “He couldn’t take it, Philip,” a short declarative sentence that welcomes no discussion.
Finally, Roth’s use of diction in this selection illustrates the importance of word choice as a way to ground the reader in time and place. Prose cautions that “A good writer understands that characters not only speak differently depending on whom they are speaking to, but also listen differently depending on who is speaking.” The key in this exchange is the word company. For those of a certain generation, this word doesn’t mean a business, but refers to visitors or friends who aren’t immediate family. We clean the house because company is coming over. By 1991, when Roth published Patrimony, contemporary readers would recognize this term as an heirloom, the kind of word we revert to unconsciously with our parents.
Bernard Cooper, almost twenty years younger than Roth and from the opposite coast, is also keenly aware of how diction can provide insights into a character’s aspirations and motivations. Early in The Bill from My Father, for example, Cooper’s father Edward slyly belittles his wife’s designer taste in describing their couch: “[M]y mother called the color salmon, my father, lox.”
Edward Cooper’s voice—whether alone or coupled in dialogue with his son—is unmistakable. Phone calls between father and son are especially hazardous. In the excerpt below, Bernard calls his father to discuss a delinquent phone bill.
“Am I disturbing you?”
“Not at all. I had to get up to answer the phone.”
“It’s laugh or cry, boychick.”
Thankfully, I’d caught him in a good humor. “There’s something we should talk about.”
“It’s your dime.”
“The regional supervisor from the phone company called me today and—”
“Some guy from the phone company called me today and—”
“What the hell business is it of yours?”
“Calm down. He called me.”
“What’d you tell that SOB?”
“I didn’t tell him anything. I listened.”
“You think I didn’t listen? I listened plenty. It’s a good thing I’m not allergic to bullshit; if I was, he’d of killed me.”
“Well, how about if I just go ahead and pay for—”
“Pay for calls I didn’t make? Don’t be an idiot.”
“Technically, the calls were made from your phone, so—”
“Let me ask you something. If you borrowed my Caddy and wrecked it, who should pay the damages, you or me?”
“That example isn’t—”
“You?” he shouted. “Or me?”
The scene continues, and in forty-four lines of dialogue, there is only one attribution (“You?” he shouted. “Or me?”). Cooper doesn’t have to tell us who’s speaking or in what tone. He doesn’t have to say his father roared or yelled or objected or accused. He doesn’t have to characterize his own reactions, either; Bernard doesn’t cajole or murmur, mumble or protest. There is not oneadverb in this entire section.
All of the above dialogue achieves what Prose refers to as “simultaneous aims,” providing subtle cues about the characters’ hidden insecurities and intentions while giving the reader a glimpse at how these characters are viewed by those who don’t know them as well as we do. Later, Bernard accompanies his father for memory testing—an appointment that causes anxiety in both father and son. After apologizing for the long wait, the doctor begins administering the tests. Edward openly mocks his son by telling the doctor Cooper was reading the Ladies’ Home Journal in the waiting room.
“And do you recall what magazine you were reading, Mr. Cooper?”
I thought of intervening because I knew my father meant he hadn’t read a magazine, not that he couldn’t recall which one.
She leaned forward, elbows on her desk. “Have you been having any difficulty remembering things recently?”
“I’m sure you are. But if we test you today, we’ll have a baseline to compare against future tests.”
“Future tests?” He looked as if he’d tasted something sour.
“What about that upsets you?”
“What about what?”
“About what I just said.”
My father went pale. “What was it you said?”
Dr. Montrose jotted a note. “I’m going to ask you several questions,” she continued, “and I’d like you to answer them one at a time.”
“How else would I?”
This conversation takes place on several levels: Edward answers the doctor’s questions with the same combination of aggression and defensiveness that characterizes his interactions not only with his son, but also with his wife, lovers, and (one imagines) the many defendants and juries he addressed during his career as a lawyer. But it is Bernard who is burdened with a weighty omniscience—like the reader, he can see what his father means in spite of his words, just as he can intuit the judgments the doctor makes about his father based on his answers to her seemingly straightforward questions. As in most of Cooper’s dialogue, the pacing is fast, with scant tag lines and only a few carefully chosen gestures. There is no time for reflection; this is a verbal volley where the stakes are high and pauses can be dangerously misinterpreted.
Meticulous attention to word choice, phrasing, and gestures can help nonfiction writers capture not just the cadence, but the essence of their subjects in a way that is only possible with astute observation and thoughtful reflection. Using dialogue to illustrate both the characters and the story allows memoirists to rise above any lingering questions about the authenticity of recreated dialogue, helping the reader to suspend disbelief and enjoy the pleasure of dropping into a stranger’s life on the page.